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Friday, September 3, 1999 Published at 21:49 GMT 22:49 UK

Business: The Company File

Tobacco industry victory

Smokers can claim individual damages in the US

The US tobacco industry won a major victory Friday when a Florida state appeals court ruled that damage claims claims must be tried individually rather than as a group.

Individual claims are expected to produce smaller compensation awards and the news removes the threat of a single multibillion-dollar verdict, feared by the five tobacco companies on trial.

The defendants are the five biggest cigarette manufacturers in the US. These are: Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco and the Liggett Group - as well as two industry associations, the Council for Tobacco Research-U.S.A and the Tobacco Institute Inc.

The ruling was made in a class-action lawsuit - the first of its kind - that was brought on behalf of as many as 500,000 sick smokers in Florida.

In July, a jury decided in the smokers' favour.

The question now before the appeals court was whether the damage claims would be considered as a group, or individually.

On Tuesday the court is set to decide how much damages they should get.

US juries have awarded damages in smoking liability cases five times previously - twice in Florida and once in New Jersey, Oregon and California. The Florida and New Jersey verdicts were overturned on appeal.

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